The one principle of Catholic social teaching

I keep reading in Catholic blogs that the Church’s social teaching is a combination or balance of two principles:  solidarity (meaning a sense of responsibility for our fellows) and subsidiarity (meaning a preference for small-scale organizations).  I must say that, if this is so, Catholic social teaching is not very interesting.  It’s not clear that these two principles add much to the twin liberal principles of equality and freedom.  In fact, the way they’re usually used, there’s a very close correspondence between the liberal’s “equality” and the Catholic’s “solidarity”.    Unfortunately, the two principles are very vague, and since they confilict, they could be used to justify just about anything.  It would seem that anything but wanton cruelty or centralization for its own sake could be justified by some combination of “solidarity” and “subsidiarity”.  Also, “subsidiarity” ignores the fact that the Church is much more interested in some small groups than others:  e.g., families are much more important than basketball teams.

Fortunately, the true Catholic social doctrine, as expressed clearly from Pope Leo XIII to Pope Piux XII, has exactly one principle, and it is simple and clear.  That principle is patriarchy.  More precisely, the guiding principle of Catholic social thought is this, that a man should be the sole provider for his family.  Everything follows from this.  Because a man must support his family, he should have property.  If he must work for a wage, it must be high enough to support a family.  State or collective bargaining action are justified to acheive this.  Socialism is bad because it means the state usurping the father’s provider role.  You see how both the “Right” and “Left” leaning consequences follow directly from this one principle?  (In reality, of course, the Church’s teaching is supremely conservative.  It is capitalism that has liberal elements.)

The pope’s themselves lay this out quite clearly.  Consider the following from Rerum Novarum:

13. That right to property, therefore, which has been proved to belong naturally to individual persons, must in like wise belong to a man in his capacity of head of a family; nay, that right is all the stronger in proportion as the human person receives a wider extension in the family group. It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten; and, similarly, it is natural that he should wish that his children, who carry on, so to speak, and continue his personality, should be by him provided with all that is needful to enable them to keep themselves decently from want and misery amid the uncertainties of this mortal life. Now, in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance. A family, no less than a State, is, as We have said, a true society, governed by an authority peculiar to itself, that is to say, by the authority of the father. Provided, therefore, the limits which are prescribed by the very purposes for which it exists be not transgressed, the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, “at least equal rights”; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature. If the citizens, if the families on entering into association and fellowship, were to experience hindrance in a commonwealth instead of help, and were to find their rights attacked instead of being upheld, society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire. 

14. The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error. True, if a family finds itself in exceeding distress, utterly deprived of the counsel of friends, and without any prospect of extricating itself, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid, since each family is a part of the commonwealth. In like manner, if within the precincts of the household there occur grave disturbance of mutual rights, public authority should intervene to force each party to yield to the other its proper due; for this is not to deprive citizens of their rights, but justly and properly to safeguard and strengthen them. But the rulers of the commonwealth must go no further; here, nature bids them stop. Paternal authority can be neither abolished nor absorbed by the State; for it has the same source as human life itself. “The child belongs to the father,” and is, as it were, the continuation of the father’s personality; and speaking strictly, the child takes its place in civil society, not of its own right, but in its quality as member of the family in which it is born. And for the very reason that “the child belongs to the father” it is, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, “before it attains the use of free will, under the power and the charge of its parents.”(4) The socialists, therefore, in setting aside the parent and setting up a State supervision, act against natural justice, and destroy the structure of the home.

There, my friends, is the true voice of reaction.  Of course, there are reasons why this sort of clarity is unwelcome to many.  Those who want to use Catholic social teaching as an escape from the Church’s alleged “obsession with sex” would not be pleased to realize how everything the Church says about both follows from a single vision of the natural, patriarchal family.  Some may also be displeased that the Chuch, in her economic thinking, focuses so exclusively on families.  This focus would not be scandalous to most societies, however, for whom marriage is the natural state for men and women.  Indeed, economics originally referred to household organization.  Liberal economic theory, I would say, sins far more greviously by essentially assuming that society is composed of unattached, androgynous worker/consumers. 

So far as I can tell, the “solidarity/subsidiarity” duality only became prominent during the reign of John XXIII, and it’s effects have been ruinous, just like everything else from that unfortunate pontificate.

Suppose we embrace the older, clearer version of Catholic social teaching.  In this case, we will–like all the pope’s until quite recently–see the explosion of female employment as a social catastrophe, something to be lamented rather than celebrated.  It means that society has greviously failed its families, that mothers are being torn away from their children and children from their mothers, that fathers are being emasculated by being denied the opportunity to fulfill their role. 

If we take Catholic social teaching seriously, we will greet every economic policy problem with the question “What will help more men support their families decently on a single income?”  The answer might be nationalization or deregulation, protectionism or free trade, government or union action, as the circumstances demand.   Since there is only one principle, there will always be one correct policy for a given set of circumstances, although we may not be smart enough to be sure what that policy is.  This in itself makes the old doctrine a superior analytical tool to the new one.

9 Responses

  1. Two questions:

    1. How patriarchal should the state be?

    2. You say that the father should be the sole provider for his family, but what would you say to the fact that throughout most of history (basically before the bourgeois/industrial revolution), women have also helped their husbands support their families?

  2. Good questions which, as has happened before, I hadn’t thought much about until you brought it up. I’m thinking that Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno are pretty clearly directed at industrial economies, so

    1) They don’t dictate in themselves what role, if any, women should have in the state.

    2) The distinction between homemaking and remunerative work is more a feature of industrial economies than anything that went before. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, both husband and wife would, in most cases, be working from home to support the household. Of course, these households were still patriarchal, but this expressed itself in the division of household duties. After the Industrial Revolution, men went off to work in factories and offices. The popes seem ambivalent about even this development (and the distributists positively hostile), but their main concern was that the women and children not get absorbed into the industrial workforce as well. Hence the need for a “family wage”.

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